House Proposes Tracking Slower Supreme Court Decisions

Mar 13, 2017

Credit Nick Evans

The Florida House seems intent on bringing the state supreme court down a few pegs after a series of stinging courtroom defeats.  The saber-rattling intensified last week as lawmakers approved new reporting requirements.

Florida’s high court doesn’t set itself any concrete deadlines.  It’s actually part of the motto, which translated from Latin means soon enough if done right.  But that emphasis on being correct rather than quick is ruffling feathers among some in the Florida House.

“Members,” Rep. Frank White (R-Pensacola) begins, “House Bill 301 requires the Supreme Court to send a report, a modest report once a year for five years and then it sunsets—asking about its performance according to its own time standard.”

That standard is to render a ruling within 180 days—six months—from the date of oral argument.

“In most cases they endeavor to say we’re going to hit that,” White says. “They’re not.”

“They’re not hitting that, 71 percent of the time in the last year they did not.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has taken aim at the judicial branch.  12 year term limits are a top priority, and Corcoran has even tagged “the seven individuals who meet in private in black robes” as the “enemy” of a good business environment.  Some Democrats believe White’s Supreme Court reporting bill is of a piece with Corcoran’s broader attack.  Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa) says the measure violates the separation of powers principle.

“Now we may be upset,” he says, “We may not like the fact that some of the decisions take time.  That one we’re just going to have to take because of Article Five of the Florida Constitution.  They are a co-equal branch.”

White and his supporters, like Rep. Cord Byrd (R-Jacksonville), contend there is nothing wrong with asking for information.

“We ask the governor to provide reports to us, the governor and the executive is a co-equal branch,” Byrd says.  “The governor provides reports to us.  We’re merely asking the court to tell us why they are taking so long to render opinions.”

Rep. Joe Geller (D-Aventura) says he would be fine with the idea if it was what Byrd describes: a request.

“But that’s not what we’re doing,” Geller says.  “This is phrased in a mandatory fashion—it says shall—which is us telling the court what to do without a word as to what would happen if they fail to do it.”

“Are we trying to provoke some kind of a Florida constitutional crisis here?” Geller asks.

The proposal gained passage on a mostly party line vote.  Speaking afterward, Rep. White defends the idea.  He says knowing there’s someone keeping tabs encourages efficiency.

“I would love to monitor performance on my own deadlines in my day job, unfortunately I don’t,” White says, “I have a boss.”

“And so the fact that I know that he is watching” White goes on, “I’m going to meet my deadlines and be efficient.”

But if the Legislature is the boss in White’s example, it would seem to reiterate Democrats’ critiques.  And while House Republicans rail against the Supreme Court, a measure that would track criminal sentences in lower courts has yet to get a hearing.  Reporting from last year indicates there are vast disparities in how some judges sentence people of color, despite the state’s points system.